Engaging young people in restoring wooden sailing ships and using digital technology to reach the ones beyond the sea

Engaging young people in restoring wooden sailing ships and using digital technology to reach the ones beyond the sea

Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
$10,000 - $50,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

To engage young people in restoring wooden sailing ships. Such ships are awe-inspiring and induce wonder and respect. Working together in the medium of wood also builds a sense of awareness and responsibility. It grows skills which, in the digital age, may be overlooked. These can lead to employment, especially in traditional industries, or to a desire for further training. We can also use digital techniques to create a record of the frames, timbers and rigging, which enables remote participation. This makes practical work accessible to those who may face personal barriers to such activity. It allows new ideas and perspectives to shape and extend the achievements of the next cohort of young people.
(www.ilen.ie/_website and www.bigboatbuild.com)

About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Limerick is the most disadvantaged urban local authority area in the Irish State – a city of sharp contrasts and severe concentrated poverty. Over 50% of electoral districts are characterised as extremely disadvantaged. There is an education deficit in the adjacent urban estates at conspicuously less than half the city average; a considerably higher rate of lone parenthood; similarly serious unemployment rates; and consequent deprivation and disaffection. We engage primarily with the young people from these areas. Some come through their schools seeking carpentry experience which is not available elsewhere. Some are brought by outreach workers or by the Police and Probation Service. We also welcome adults. Some wish simply to volunteer on the restoration project. Others seek to experience carpentry before deciding whether to retrain formally. Some are introduced by Enable Ireland, a charity for homeless men. The urgency of the situation has led to a Limerick Regeneration Agencies initiative but progress is patchy and uneven. Only where an initiative seems able to stimulate the spirit and imagination within, and offer dignity and respect, does hope for the long term seem justified. Our project does just that.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

Almost any wooden sailing ship can still be rebuilt. Restoration is normally undertaken commercially and for a particular purpose. Sometimes, replica vessels are commissioned, with the help of substantial budgets. It is very unusual to find such projects inspired by love of the medium (wood), open to untrained workers (young people), and connected historically and emotionally with the place where the project will take place (always local). This is why we talk about dreams. The young people who come to us have young dreams or no dreams at all. Some know only what it is to survive in peripheral urban estates. Whatever their motives, we make space for them to work with wood, learn its ways and discover its strength. Touch and finger tips are very important. Almost without knowing it, those that want to come back begin to learn how fragile pieces, assembled properly, can be very strong. They make those fragile pieces. They are shown how to fit them together. And, suddenly, they have understood the vision of the person who dreamed it all in the first place and can see themselves helping to take their re-creation back to the seas around them where their sailing ship first was launched.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

Education, education, education. Our principal training platform is a 56ft twin-masted ketch, built in Ireland, in 1926. She spent her working career in the Falkland Islands but was brought home in 1998. Restoration began in 2009. We also build smaller boats, like traditional Irish curraghs, and repair wooden sailing dinghies. Within three years, we shall have trained 150 young people to sail our ships at sea. The next vessel we shall restore is the same ketch that inspired the Falkland Islanders to order a similar boat for themselves. This ketch’s timbers lie wrecked on a beach in Jamaica where a tornado caught her 43 years ago. We have taken the first steps in looking for partners in Jamaica. Our dream is to use digital technology to share our experience and, remotely, to help young people there build their own dream. We shall extend that technical project, through broader educational initiatives, to young people along her original voyage through the South Seas. We shall sail our ketch out to inspire the Jamaican project – and someone will sail their ketch on to inspire others in turn. Digital technology can help this adventure reach young people denied such opportunities. We shall welcome their dreams in with ours.
About You
A K Ilen Company
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About Your Organization
Organization Name

A K Ilen Company

Organization Country
Country where this project is creating social impact
How long has your organization been operating?

1‐5 years

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What stage is your project in?

Operating for 1‐5 years

Share the story of the founder and what inspired the founder to start this project

Our founder was Gary MacMahon of Limerick. In 1998, Gary flew to the Falkland Islands with a sum of money in his pocket, a dream and a difficult decision to take. Was the 56ft ketch, formerly operated by the Falkland Islands Company, worth buying and taking home for restoration? He decided it was – and looking over his shoulder, no doubt, was the spectre of another Irish sailor, called Conor O’Brien, also from the Limerick area.

In 1923, Conor built a 42ft ketch and sailed it around the world in the first circumnavigation solely under sail. He stopped at the Falklands where they were so impressed that they asked him to build a larger boat, once home in Ireland, and sail it back. The ketch Conor brought them is the one that Gary bought. Its restoration is led by a family taught by the same man who built it under Conor’s direction. It is being restored near the place where it was first launched.

Wood has different properties. Gary has recycled timbers from disused warehouses in America and tracked down pitch pine, oak and western larch wherever he could find it. We take that old wood and give it new life.

Social Impact
Please describe how your project has been successful and how that success is measured

We now run, in parallel, a restoration project in a boatyard and a boat-building School in Limerick city. The School supports the restoration but also runs it own educational programmes.

The School has seen a growth in agencies referring participants – schools, charities and State agencies. Since 2009, we have achieved a steady throughput of 5-6 participants each working day for 3 hours (plus a 3 hour preparation period for each session). 80% of participants are aged 13-16 years, the remainder are adults. For the time being, most are male. We have not yet been able to attract the interest of young females in the practical activity of boat-building where we believe anyone with a precise eye and natural deftness of touch would find an accessible medium for their imagination.

The restoration project has attracted approximately 40 adults, ranging from undergraduates to older people, who return regularly to assist. In contrast with the School, volunteers are both male and female in roughly equal proportions.

Qualitatively, the School is the first safe space in which many of our participants can understand their potential. But it also attracts those who have already realised theirs: engineers from Limerick University have asked to be involved in designing the sails.

How many people have been impacted by your project?


How many people could be impacted by your project in the next three years?


How will your project evolve over the next three years?

We shall:
• double participation in the School by relocating to a larger workshop
• bring the Chief Instructor of the US North West Wooden Boat Building School to spend two months with us to ‘train the trainers’
• appoint a second permanent instructor
• use role models from the restoration project to introduce young females to our work
• open a second School in Ireland
• explore the role of digital technology between the two Schools before developing a similar link with the restoration project planned with Jamaica
• develop sail training in wooden sailing ships and train 150 young people by 2015

What barriers might hinder the success of your project and how do you plan to overcome them?

Participation in the School will continue to be free of charge. We invite volunteers on the restoration project to contribute in different ways but we never turn anyone away.

Within Ireland, we shall:
• develop a repair service in the School to raise money for materials
• develop a paying customer base for ‘night school’ classes (seven courses planned)
• tailor our training to Further Education entry requirements so as to participate in Central Government educational finance
• take up grant-aid from the Limerick Regeneration Agencies initiative for the School and from the West Cork Development Partnership for the restoration project
• take up an offer of capital funding to establish the second School
• approach the Department for Finance for a share of the insurance monies from the recent loss at sea of Ireland’s Asgard II sail training ship, with which we shall develop a new Sail Training School

Outside Ireland, we are:
• seeking partners for an application for EU Interreg (Atlantic Area) funding
• applying to Digicel for feasibility funding for collaboration with Jamaica
• starting a cultural programme with help from the Shackleton Fund which will extend to southern hemisphere communities by 2015

Tell us about your partnerships

Early partnership-building was directed at the restoration programme. We created a focus for wider, disparate interest in the sea and we never turned anyone away. We now have partnerships with West Cork Development, the Baltimore Wooden Boat Festival and the only traditional wooden boat yard left in West Cork, as well as local communities.

But not everyone lives and works in West Cork and our separate interests were in Limerick beside the Shannon estuary. So we built our School there where there was a huge social problem alongside a dying tradition of wooden sailing ships. We now have working relationships with local regeneration agencies, schools, the police, outreach social work, and Glenstal Abbey (a Benedictine monastery and school whose Forester advises us).

Our wider links extend to the University of Limerick (for sail design), to Queen’s University Belfast (for Falklands archives), to University College Dublin (for folklore), to the Falkland Islands community (for oral history contributions). We even work with the US School of Wooden Boat Building, Wa., whose Chief Instructor will spend July and August with us this year. We have recently proposed a feasibility study to Digicel Caribbean which will bring two Jamaican boat-builders to Ireland.

Explain your selections

Restoration is supported by:
• Development agency grant (job creation in a traditional industry)
• One-off grants from a spread of charities interested in the sea and in Ireland (for materials)
• In-kind contributions of interested personalities to help raise awareness and attract donations
• Community volunteering and ‘pay-as-you-go’ projects like ‘Buy a Plank’

The School is supported by:
• Regeneration grant for educational services within a depressed area attracting national investment
• Material contributions from industry – for example, unwanted joinery and machinery
• Volunteers

It follows that, until now, we have patched together different sources of funding and contribution whenever they became available. It has been a little untidy but it has worked.

How do you plan to strengthen your project in the next three years?

We are taking a strategic approach to project development. Having set up the School and launched the restoration programme, Gary Mac Mahon, was obliged to assume greater responsibility than planned for driving both forward. Quite by chance, Dr Martin Kay, who is a writer, sociologist and former maritime helicopter pilot with direct experience of the Falkland Islands, became involved. There is a synergy between the two which enables Gary to manage the wider circle of acquaintances and connections while Martin undertakes the strategic planning and execution. Simultaneously, two skilled ship’s carpenters became involved, alongside the permanent leader of the Limerick School. Gary, Martin and the two ship’s carpenters have given their time voluntarily, although some will become employees as the project develops.

The strategic priorities have been to separate the School from the restoration programme (they are 150 miles apart), and to work from a Business Plan to funding opportunities rather than allowing funding opportunities to dictate what happens next. Key elements are:
• Understanding the potential of linking traditional skills with modern technology
• Developing a cultural project from restoring a boat
• Placing personal development at the core
• Thinking laterally to overcome barriers to inclusion

Which barriers to employment does your innovation address?
Please select up to three in order of relevancy to your project.


Restrictive cultural norms


Lack of skills/training



Please describe how your innovation specifically tackles the barriers listed above.

We create space for the imagination to be liberated. This enables even the disaffected to become involved without judgement or condition. We respect their presence and make space for them to do something practical alongside others doing the same thing. Next, the medium of wood is tactile, rather than prescriptive, allowing participants to engage without having to conform. Then, the boat itself takes over: the dream takes hold.

We enable participants to train through their own imagination, as opposed to making them learn from prescribed standards. This builds a sense of awareness and a desire to proceed. It reintroduces young people to work-skills and further training possibilities – to job opportunities below the digital horizon and even to small business start-ups.

Are you trying to scale your organization or initiative?
If yes, please check up to three potential pathways in order of relevancy to you.


Enhanced existing impact through addition of complementary services


Grown geographic reach: Multi-country


Influenced other organizations and institutions through the spread of best practices

Please describe which of your growth activities are current or planned for the immediate future.

First, we shall develop restoration projects at the School in Limerick, and open a second School at the restoration project in West Cork. The two can then stand alone, serving different communities, but also provide an inter-operational test-bed for wider replication.

Second, we shall build inter-country partnerships. We have identified a possible Spanish partner for EU funding and approached Digicel Caribbean for assistance. We want to restore the wrecked ketch in Jamaica working digitally with a Caribbean organisation based on our experience.

Third, we shall use these links to connect culturally with locations along the route of the 1923-5 circumnavigation.

Each of these is at the exploratory stage but we expect action before the end of 2011.

Do you collaborate with any of the following: (Check all that apply)

Technology providers, NGOs/Nonprofits, Academia/universities.

If yes, how have these collaborations helped your innovation to succeed?

We collaborate with:
• Government agencies through local regeneration programmes (Limerick) and EU development funding (West Cork)
• Digicel Caribbean with whom we wish to explore the use of technology links for project management and data manipulation
• NGOs/nonprofits through the Shackleton Fund which is a partner in our research programme
• Academia for sail design (University of Limerick), Falklands archive (Queen’s University Belfast), folklore and field research (University College Dublin)

These have helped through funding, advice and access to archives and expertise. The link with Digicel is yet to be proved – we are seeking contacts in Jamaica, digital links and technology, and educational advice.